Rudolf Steiner’s Legacy Today
2011 marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of the spiritual and esoteric teacher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). Although his key book is titled Theosophy, and he was secretary-general of the German branch of the Theosophical Society from 1902 to about 1913 when he left to start the Anthroposophical Society,(1) I do not recall many blogs here on his life and thought. I would normally have left to others who are part of the Steiner movement to write about him, all the more so that I have never been able to get into German thought.
When I was a student at Princeton, I was a student of Walter Stace who taught a course on mystical thought — mostly Buddhism that he knew well from his days as a British colonial administrator in what is today Sri Lanka. He had written on G.W.F. Hegel whom he considered to be the best of the Western philosophers. As Hegel was not able through reason to answer certain questions, Stace turned to the study of mystical systems. So on the basis of my admiration for Stace, I tried to read Hegel and failed. In graduate studies at the University of Chicago, I again tried to read Hegel and again failed. Sleep would always come after two pages. Then, I was sent, for reasons, no doubt of a karmic nature, to Germany as a US soldier. I thought that perhaps on German soil, I could get into Hegel, but always failed. I tried the same thing in Germany with reading K. Marx, and again after a few pages was thinking about other things. I even visited Marx’s boyhood home in Trier in the hope that the vibrations would help, but, alas, beyond the short Communist Manifesto which has a good start and last line, Marx and Hegel have been my substitute for sleeping pills.
Steiner fits into my same difficulty with German thought even though I spent three days at the Steiner Goetheanum in Dornach, near Bale, Switzerland. Thus, I leave to others to analyse Steiner’s thought and his investigations of the spiritual world and his techniques so that others could also study in the same way. Rudolf Steiner held that man was a citizen of two worlds — the heavenly and the earthly . It is his ‘earthly’ legacy which interests me in the light of my preparation of essays for the UN Rio plus 20 conference this June on ecologically-sound development and poverty reduction. The other ‘earthly’ concern of Steiner for me was banking. At a time of a global financial crisis which can continue to be partly hidden behind hugh bank bailouts and aid to overly-indebted governments, it is useful to look at the banking principles and experiences linked to the Steiner movement, especially in the Netherlands.
There are three ‘earthly’ legacies of Rudolph Steiner:
1) Education with the Steiner or Waldorf school and the related Camphill educational communities for the mentally retarded or mentally ill.
2) Agriculture with the ‘biodynamic agriculture’ a forerunner of the growing movement for ecologically-sound agriculture.
3) Finance — his response to the post First World War economic and financial crisis in Europe, especially in Germany.
I will leave to another time an essay on Steiner’s educational methods and their link to what he holds are seven-year cycles of growth of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development. There are some 500 Steiner schools and their number keeps expanding. It is the largest non-religious private school movement in the world. The Camphill communities for the mentally-retarded were developed by Steiner teachers who left Austria and Germany in the late 1930s for England. Some were Jews, others were under pressure as the Nazi government had closed all the Steiner schools. As there was already a well developed private school tradition in England (even if they are called ‘public schools’) the Steiner people turned to caring for the mentally retarded as there was little creative work with the mentally handicapped in England. After the Second World War, the Camphill movement then expanded to other countries in Europe, the USA and Israel.
Steiner gave the name ‘biodynamic’ to his proposed methods of agriculture. For Steiner, the agricultural techniques proposed were based on his suprasensitive knowledge of the soul forces operative in the soil, plant and animal world. Biodynamic agriculture is increasingly important as an alternative to chemically-dominated farming in Europe and North America and has spread to Australia and New Zealand. There are yearly courses for farm-related persons given at the Goetheanum. There is a large use of astrology and cycles of the moon in biodynamic agriculture, again based on Steiner’s understanding of the influence of the moon and planets upon life on earth.
As with other aspects of the Steiner-related work in education or health, there is the problem of the use of such techniques by people who have no special access to the spirit world. While planting or harvesting related to the phases of the moon is found in many cultures, biodynamic agriculture is more complex and can only be judged by most by the results, not by independent observation of nature spirits and the soul of plants.
“Man is not a being who stands still; he is a being in process of becoming. The more he enables himself to become, the more he fulfills his true mission.” The quote from Steiner is an indication of his concern with finance and banking in a period of crisis.
While the financial situation today is not as drastic as the period just after the end of the First World War, it has already led to strong demonstrations and riots in Greece and Spain and to the growing “Occupy” movement elsewhere. Steiner held that what is needed in times of crisis is not to harbour many thoughts about the surrounding world because such thoughts only strengthen the disorder of the outward world, but one should use meditation — an inner will-permeated work to bring harmony and equilibrium. Nevertheless, Steiner was well conscious of events of the times — the break up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in which he was born (in what is today Croatia) and the changes in Germany where he had spent most of his working life. Moreover, in 1922, the first Goetheanum, which was built of wood and whose style represented Steiner’s spiritual insights was completely destroyed by fire, probably by Right-wing German thugs. Thus, he turned his attention to proposals for the reconstruction of society, in particular banking as finance and monetary policy was at the heart of the crisis.
Today, there is a need felt by many that there is disorder in the banking and finance sectors. There are calls for more government regulation as well as wild conspiracy theories that fly about. While Steiner’s writings are not a blueprint for reforms today, they are an example of spiritual insights being applied to a key ‘material’ question. We can be inspired by Rudolf Steiner’s efforts even as we develop other ideas and other styles of presentation.
1) For a revised PhD thesis written by an outsider to the Steiner work see. Geoffrey Ahern Sun at Midnight. The Rudolf Steiner Movement and the Western Esoteric Tradition (Wellington: The Aquarian Press, 1984, 256pp.)
From someone writing from within the Steiner movement but published by the same publisher see Bernard Nesfield-Cookson Rudolf Steiner’s Vision of Love (Wellingborough. The Aquarian Press, 1984-3, 350pp.)